Indie Workers: Is Self-Employment the New Norm?

Attorney Laurie Gray quit the prosecutor's office two years ago and joined the ranks of those leaving secure work behind. Now, the Fort Wayne, Ind., mother of one has more time for her family and professional activities, including writing, teaching, serving as a bilingual interpreter, and running, which she founded to teach parents how to model behaviors their children should adopt.

Liam Bailey | Getty Images

More people are trying to create their own work," she says. "They want to follow their passion and work on their own schedule."

Even at a time when a sluggish economy is causing many Americans to look for more job security, a large number of workers are striking out on their own. By one estimate, there are 16 million "career independent workers."

Although experts disagree on the size of the cohort, their numbers do appear to be increasing. The move seems to be a confluence of three trends: workers, especially professionals, seeking more flexibility; technology that makes it easier for them to set up shop; and corporations looking to avoid hiring full-time employees at a time when business cycles are shorter than normal.

"Executives want to be able to ratchet [operations] up and down" in step with "real-time changes in the economy," says Carl Camden, president and chief executive officer of Kelly Services, a large temporary staffing company based in Troy, Mich.

That can require "adjustments to employment, as well as inventory and acquisition of raw materials," he says.

About 44 percent of workers in the United States are already "free agents" – people working on their own behalf, he estimates. By the end of this decade, he says they'll represent about 50 percent of the workforce. Mr. Camden predicts that newly minted independent workers will most likely be from areas like IT – information technology.

In turn, more people are seeking greater work-life flexibility. They also want more say in their work and a greater variety of assignments, and through technology and social media, they can access more opportunities.

"Technology has accelerated people's ability to work independently," says Gene Zaino, CEO of MBO Partners, a provider of back-office support to independent consultants.

Most of the existing 16 million independent workers are experts or knowledge workers, and include people who work through temporary staffing agencies or those who own a business with fewer than five employees, says MBO Partners, based in Herndon, Va. It projects that the ranks of such workers will hit some 20 million next year and 70 million by 2020 – or about half the private, nongovernment workforce.

Not everyone believes such forecasts.

Trend growing, but many workers 'hate instability'

"The trend seems likely to grow, but I don't believe the magnitude of it is anything close" to what some reports suggest, says Barry Hirsch, economics professor at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "Workers do want flexibility," but many "hate risk and instability" and want a stable income.

In turn, companies need employees who understand their business. While "employers can use temporary workers for generic tasks, such as developing a website," Professor Hirsch says, "they also need staffers with knowledge and skills applicable specifically to their firm. In this case, companies want long-term employees who will stay with them."

Another reason for staying with a company: health benefits. Many people "don't want to shoulder the burden of health care," says Dawn Rasmus¬sen, owner of Path¬finder Writing & Career Services, a Portland, Ore., firm specializing in career management services. Thus, while many project and temporary workers are independent for now, they will prefer full-time jobs with benefits when hiring picks up. Many of today's temporary workers "are waiting to see when the hiring will occur," she adds.

For temps aiming to get a full-time job, Ms. Ras¬mussen offers several tips:

•Think and act like an employee. Ask to be part of the communications distribution list and share your knowledge and suggestions that could benefit the company. If possible, request additional tasks, which will underscore your interest in the organization.

•Provide timely, concise status reports on your work to managers and co-workers.

•Ask to be hired full time, and, once you grasp the company's needs and financial state, propose a full-time job if a suitable one isn't already available.

•Use your résumé skillfully. To avoid looking like a job hopper, list your self-employment as one header on the résumé with your various projects underneath it, rather than listing each assignment separately.